Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's prickly self-confidence and faith in the moral imperative of American leadership have earned him detractors around the globe - while also making him one of President Bush's closest advisers on national security.
This may also explain why the scrappiest cabinet member has survived one flap after another: He embodies many core Bush administration values. "Rumsfeld has been pivotal to this administration," says Loren Thompson, a defense expert here. "The president agrees with most of what Rumsfeld believes about the world, and he's much more dependent on Rumsfeld for advice" than on other cabinet members.
Yet with the latest armor uproar, the Pentagon chief, who seems to flit to controversy like a moth to a porch light, has managed to alienate not only some senior Republicans but, increasingly, military members who blame him for faulty decisions on the Iraq war that are now costing US lives. In the long run, it is a lack of faith within the military establishment - from ordinary troops to US commanders - that could prove the most serious threat to Rumsfeld's tenure. Indeed, if conditions in Iraq continue to worsen, and key military constituencies lose confidence in Rumsfeld, he could become practically ineffective.
To be sure, US Defense secretaries throughout history have drawn political fire in times of war - and Rumsfeld is no exception. At the same time, Rumsfeld retains stalwart supporters in Washington and within military ranks.
But Rumsfeld's abrasive personality and take-no-prisoners style has often plunged him into disputes that might have been readily avoided with a more diplomatic touch. For the moment, the most overt expression of dissatisfaction with Rumsfeld continues to come from the political arena.
"I have no confidence in Rumsfeld's leadership," Sen. Chuck Hagel (R) of Nebraska said Sunday on CBS's "Face the Nation." "I think those in the Pentagon, specifically the civilian leadership, failed this country in addressing a post-Saddam Iraq." While Senator Hagel stopped short of calling for Rumsfeld to resign, he said he found it "astounding" that no one at the Pentagon has been held accountable for the poor planning.
He joins other prominent Republicans - including Sen. John McCain of Arizona and Sen. Trent Lott of Mississippi - who have said they've lost confidence in the Defense secretary or called on him to step down eventually. Other Republican senators agreed Sunday that Rumsfeld should be held responsible, but asserted he should keep his job - in part because switching Defense secretaries in wartime causes its own turmoil.
"[Rumsfeld] should be held accountable ... and should stay in office," Sen. Richard Lugar (R) of Indiana said Sunday on NBC's "Meet the Press." "He needs to listen ... and he is listening. [But] a change in leadership at this point might be" disruptive.
Mounting pressure on Rumsfeld from the political right is underpinned by significant dissent within the military establishment that could be the most ominous sign for the Defense secretary. Rumsfeld himself has said he wouldn't stay on if he couldn't perform his duties.
"I would resign in a minute if I thought that I couldn't be effective," he testified in May before the House Armed Services Committee after the Abu Ghraib prison abuse scandal created widespread public outrage. He admitted at the time that the question of his effectiveness was something he had to "wrestle with."
He was equally adamant, however, that he would not be an easy target for politically motivated attacks. "I'm certainly not going to resign because some people are trying to make a political issue," he said.
Indeed, a self-described "survivor" who has earned the distinction of serving as both the youngest and oldest Defense chief, Rumsfeld would like to stay on to try to push forward a major reshaping of the US military and quell the violence in Iraq - and thus secure a more favorable legacy.
"There is much left to be done on his legacy of [military] transformation," says Mr. Thompson of the Lexington Institute, a think-tank in Arlington, Va., "and he has a strong incentive to vindicate his policies in Iraq."
Still, the recent furor over ongoing shortages of armored vehicles in Iraq - and Rumsfeld's perceived callousness toward US soldiers - is symptomatic of broader criticism of his wartime leadership within the military, particularly the Army, that could ultimately prove his undoing.
Specifically, senior Army officers inside and outside the Pentagon criticize what they describe as Rumsfeld's micro-managing of troop levels leading up to and after the Iraq invasion in March 2003. Rumsfeld's office aborted the planned influx of US forces into Iraq following the war's "rolling start," they say.
"This 'rolling start' was based on the continuing deployment of forces - seven to nine division equivalents over time - and we didn't think we'd have to fight for the ongoing deployments," says one senior Army officer, who spoke on condition of anonymity. "But we had to argue for days and weeks for further deployments that we thought were already approved," he said. "So while we were fighting the war, [we] spent untold hours rearranging the pieces of the deployment" and "justifying the need for brigades, battalions, and sometimes detachments," he said. "The [Secretary of Defense's] office wanted to personally approve every deployment."
More generally, military officers are sharply critical of the failure of Pentagon leadership to anticipate the level of Iraqi opposition to the invasion. "Every major assumption they made about Iraq was wrong," said another senior Army officer. He said in a measure of the Pentagon's over-optimistic projections of how well the occupation would unfold, US troop levels by now were to have fallen to less than 25,000. Instead, US forces in Iraq are now increasing to 150,000.
Today, moreover, some critics within the military and Republican Party are openly questioning whether US forces are doing more harm than good in Iraq, while faulting the Pentagon leadership for the lack of a clear exit strategy.
"I think we are more part of the problem than part of the solution," one military officer said, contending that anti-American nationalism is a leading cause of violent attacks in Iraq.